A Dog’s Dinner of a Brexit
So much has been said about Brexit already that I don’t want to add more. Instead I’d like to reflect a little on our confused national sense of ourselves. I feel this underlies our attitude to how we British make choices like Leave or Remain. The thing is, we’re not sure who we are anymore as a nation, and we don’t want to be subsumed and become ever more lost within the faceless EU. And ok, we may have made a dog’s dinner out of brexiting, but dammit, it’s our mess and we’re in control! (Though of course we’re not really in control).
Let’s face it, we British are stubborn, difficult and pig headed; no one tells us what to do.
Nearly all the economic experts told us that it really wasn’t in our interests to Brexit; all the hard facts were against it, but we didn’t want to listen to ‘experts’ with all their fear mongering. Sod it! We’ll decide for ourselves, thank you. To hell with the consequences. Many people didn’t necessarily think things would improve at all with Leave, but went ahead anyway as a protest vote. We stand alone; the Dunkirk spirit.
Now there are also positive aspects to these qualities as I just mentioned. Our dogged determination served us well in the Blitz or when facing IRA mainland bombings and after the 7/7 attacks. No panic on British streets, it just hardened our resolve. Character traits are double edged.
Where’s My Country?
Any positive sense of national pride in post-Empire Britain has become very problematic. Any expression of patriotism has been ridiculed and condemned as racist and living in the past. Think ‘white van man’. People felt their country was being taken away from them, and don’t even know what it means to be English or British now. We were Great Britain and The Empire, and now we’re…… dunno… sort of nothing. Many from outside of booming metropolitan areas, like those who live in the North and Midlands, have endured the numbing spectre of decline, disappearing jobs and hopelessness.
No National Story Anymore
People very understandably want to be respected, to have self respect, and yet they felt that the government and the elites have abandoned them. So they exercised their independence with Brexit, sometimes not even caring if they themselves will suffer for it (which they likely will). ‘Taking back control’ cleverly spoke to our feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness, and promised independence and self respect, though in reality, it is just an artful slogan delivering almost nothing.
And also in well to do areas too, especially older people feel they are losing their country – Britain or England – and have made a stand with a self-determining gesture in protest. I was struck by this spirit in well to do areas of the East Riding in Yorkshire, where I visited recently.
The Scottish have a positive national story which all sections of the population feel they can embrace. In contrast, we British or English don’t now possess any positive national narrative; at best our story is vague, self deprecating and an embarrassment to us. We’re just not sure of our identity anymore, and this plays into the allure of ‘taking back control’, somehow fighting back and restoring respect.
It’s not really about the EU
We are a difficult bunch. Britain arguably had the best deal with the EU of any country. We paid less per head than all other nations with rebates secured by Mrs Thatcher. We had special exclusions, from the single currency to the Schengen passport free zone. We had all the benefits and less of the costs. It was us who chose to follow neoliberal policies; that didn’t come from the EU. So we managed to have free trade with less constraints than many, especially southern European countries. Yet we were always complaining (which of course is a British national habit). Our attitude towards the EU has always been argumentative and extremely self serving.
Much of what we do is not very rational. The sovereignty which many felt they were reclaiming by voting Leave, was largely fictitious. Hanging onto notions of sovereignty is understandably appealing to many of us Brits who feel our country has been taken away from us. Yet if we had more confidence in our national identity, I feel that we would recognise that there can still be sovereignty along with cooperation and interdependence.
This is why I feel it is important that we come to terms with our past and come to a healthier and better integrated national psyche, for all our sakes.